Interview: Food Tech Matters Partner SPACE-F on the agri-foodtech sector emerging in Thailand

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6 min read
AUTHOR: Tilly St Aubyn

Food Tech Matters Partner SPACE-F discuss the agri-foodtech landscape in Thailand and some of its program start-ups.

Founded in 2019, SPACE-F runs both an accelerator and incubator track with a vision to strengthen access to better, safer and more nutritious food, and future-proof the global food supply chain.

What does the agri-foodtech sector in your country look like?

You may have heard of Tom Yum Kung, Thailand’s most popular dish. Thailand is known as the “kitchen of the world”, not only for creating well-known dishes but also for its competitive advantages in the food and agricultural industries, due to reasons including its plentiful and varied natural resources and low-cost skilled workforce.

To leverage Thailand’s strengths, the government has aimed to support more research and encourage innovators to establish businesses in order to support increasing global demand. That positions Thailand to be a perfect place for start-ups to launch their business. Recently, the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2021, a global ranking of a countries’ innovation ecosystems, ranked Thailand as 43rd. Thailand is now striving to be in the top 30 by 2030 with new programs to support the innovation ecosystem and attract talent.

SPACE-F is Thailand’s first dedicated foodtech incubator and accelerator program attracting start-ups from around the globe. The program was initiated by three co-founders: The National Innovation Agency (NIA), Thai Union Group PCL. and Mahidol University. It offers participating start-ups the opportunity to promote their growth through 1-2-1 consultations with coaches/mentors, classes and networking activities. The program now accepting applications for its third batch and welcomes foodtech start-ups globally.

What is the most important progress made in agri-foodtech in your region?

COVID-19 has served as a catalyst in accelerating innovation development and we have witnessed significant progress from foodtech start-ups. One example is Wongnai, a restaurant review platform that connects users with suitable restaurants based on their preferences. Wongnai has now merged with LINE MAN (a delivery service provider) as a new entity called “LINE MAN Wongnai”.  This novel collaboration allows both companies to leverage their core strengths during a time in which food delivery has grown dramatically in the Thai foodtech ecosystem. Collaboration is a key component of the SPACE-F program, with some programme participants building business relationships with programme alumni and corporate sponsors and even securing funding from programme partners.

We are seeing many of Thailand’s leading companies engaging with start-ups to develop a vibrant ecosystem that will spur economic growth. Multiple Thai banks have unveiled new Venture Capital (VC) divisions that are investing in emerging technologies, including agri-foodtech. Alongside SPACE-F, Thai Union Group PCL also invests in deeptech start-ups in the food sector through the companies’ Corporate Venture Capital (CVC) arm.

Which areas of the agri-foodtech sector are in particular need of innovation?

Key areas of innovation in the foodtech sector are: increasing production and efficiency, reducing costs, creation of new channels to market, creating new products or production methods and reducing waste. Solution providers need to take into account that labour is traditionally inexpensive and the majority of farmers are small scale with limited budgets for investment into expensive solutions. 

Agritech start-ups that have gained attention in the agricultural industry have focused on ag-biotechnology, farm robotics, mechanisation and equipment, farm management software, sensor and IoT (internet of things), novel farming systems, post-harvesting technology, logistics and traceability, agribusiness marketplaces and e-grocery.

For the foodtech sector, SPACE-F has developed nine key focus areas that are at the heart of the sector’s needs: Health & Wellness, Alternative Proteins, Smart Manufacturing, Packaging Solutions, Novel Food & Ingredients, Biomaterials & Chemicals, Restaurant Tech, Food Safety & Quality and Smart Food Services.

What are the challenges currently faced by the agri-foodtech industry?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) points out that Thailand can produce more food than it consumes. However, even regionally, this will not be enough to support an increasing global population, and therefore advanced technologies will be required to serve global demand. Innovations from corporates may not be developed fast enough and so many are partnering with agile start-ups to help address their pain points.

However, start-ups in the agri-foodtech sector generally have a longer development horizon than other sectors and require greater investments before seeing a return. The Thai Government, with support from the private sector, is therefore seeking to help start-ups by financially supporting them from the beginning.

What are the most important characteristics you look for when investing in start-ups?

Thai Union Group PCL is the world’s seafood leader, bringing high quality, healthy, tasty and innovative seafood products to our customers across the world for over 40 years. As part of our open innovation strategy, Thai Union formed a Corporate Venture Capital fund to support innovation in the foodtech ecosystem. The fund focuses on four strategic areas: alternative protein, functional nutrition, biotechnology and value chain technology. Thai Union invests in entrepreneurial companies that are developing breakthrough technologies in foodtech, with underlying defensible IP, and will actively partner with these companies to support and accelerate their development.

Which start-ups have you worked with/accelerated and why?

SPACE-F has now accelerated two cohorts and has had the opportunity to connect with 34 remarkable and passionate foodtech start-ups that successfully graduated from the programme. Alumni consist of start-ups from all around the world and fall into our nine focus sectors covering the majority of technologies within the foodtech sector. A diverse snapshot of the SPACE-F alumni are: Alchemy FoodTech, HydroNeo, Let’s Plant Meat, IXON Food Technology and Yindii.

Do you invest globally or in specific regions?

Thai Union’s Corporate Venture Capital Fund invests globally in start-ups with deeptech and potentially disruptive technologies to the food industry. 

SPACE-F does not provide investment into start-ups but connects start-ups with potential strategic partners and investors. 

What is your advice for start-ups beginning in this industry?

If you have proven technology to advance the future of food and would like to translate that technology into a sound business or expand to a new market, Thailand is uniquely positioned to act as your springboard into the Asian market. SPACE-F is now accepting applications for our third batch and will provide you the necessary tools for success in Asia. The SPACE-F programme has two tracks: our incubator track is designed to take your product concepts to minimum viable product (MVP) and market launch, and our accelerator track is for scaling up your business. Whichever path suits you best, we are here to support you through your journey. 

For more information about the program and its cohort, please visit SPACE-F.

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